Black History We Should Know: Harriet E. Wilson

Posted: February 26, 2013 in Black History
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harriet wilson

Harriet “Hattie” E. Wilson was born in Milford, New Hampshire, around 1825 and is believed to be the first African American to publish a novel on the North American continent. Up until the unveiling and republishing of that novel, Our Nig, little was known about her life. It wasn’t until the realization that the book is an autobiography of her life that facts were gathered about her life’s timeline. Until its rediscovery 120 years after original publication in the 1980’s, the book was believed to be written by a white author.

It is speculated that her father was Joshua Green, an African American who worked at a cooperage and her mother, Mag Smith – a poor white washerwoman. Her father died when she was five or six, and her mother abandoned her to the home of a local family, the Haywards, after that. Wilson worked as an indentured servant for the Haywards until the mid-1840s then left and worked as a servant in other local households.

In 1851 she married Thomas Wilson and had a son, George Mason Wilson, in 1852. Her husband died in 1853, and Harriet was forced to leave her son with foster parents. He died before his eighth birthday, after years in and out of poor houses while Wilson struggled to make a living through writing. In 1859 Wilson published Our Nig, her indictment of indentured servitude and hidden racism in the North. The remainder of Wilson’s life is the subject of scholarly speculation. Some have her back in a poor house in Milford. Others have her prospering as a businesswoman and spiritualistic Doctor in Boston. Unfortunately, the book did not provide much financial success, and Wilson is said to have died in Massachusetts in June of 1900. Until the rediscovery of Wilson’s novel, records sited Frances Ellen Watkins Harper as the first published African American.

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